Youâ€™re alone in a foreign country, on a mission of international security. Your police escort has been killed, and you’re in the middle of nowhere, armed only with a pistol and a few rounds of ammunition, most of which youâ€™ve already had to use on malevolent locals. Youâ€™ve been captured and injected, youâ€™re alone, no backup is coming, and the background music is really beginning to creep you out. And then, behind a building, you meet a cloaked figure.
â€œGot a selection of good things on sale, stranger,â€ he says, â€œheh heh heh,â€ and every shred of suspension of disbelief that Resident Evil 4 had built up flies up and away, disappearing like a startled crow.
There arenâ€™t many games that handle traders and merchants well, but RE4 handles them astonishingly badly. For a start, what the hell are itinerant salespeople doing in a survival-horror game? Obviously, yes, thereâ€™s a market for high-powered weaponry in a section of Spanish countryside populated by zombies, but the risk-to-reward ratio has got to be higher than opening up a boutique by Seven Sisters tube. Plus, if you did decide to earn your living by selling weapons to passing US Secret Service agents (â€œenough weapons to start a small warâ€ as the game says at one point), you would stock some ammunition as well. Mr â€œHeh heh hehâ€ has apparently forgotten that. Or maybe itâ€™s his way of making sure that you donâ€™t buy a nice new gun and a clip of ammo, and then blow his fool head off with it and nick his stuff, T-800 style.
Of course, of course, that last point is for game balance: survival-horror is nothing without ammo shortages. But then why bother with power-up weapons at all? Make the player fight through the whole game with a small selection of guns, none appreciably better than another? I mean, if itâ€™s good enough for the Master Chief…
But Iâ€™m digressing. The moment the merchant appears Resident Evil 4 stops being about surviving mad zombie attacks and saving the presidentâ€™s magic football, and becomes about exploring the environment to find enough cash and things to sell in order to buy better kit. In other words, the presence of the merchant fundamentallyÂ changes the game. I’ll go further: it ruins the game.
Off the top of my head, I can think of three better ways to handle the characterâ€™s progression up the equipment tree:
- Solve puzzles. Work out how to open a locked gun cabinet, for example. There are plenty of puzzly puzzles in RE4. It would make a lot more sense to have them protecting something of immediate game-value like a weapon, instead of a gem that needs to be fitted to another item and then sold to the merchant to buy that weapon.
- Equipment drops. The character is in radio contact with base. They are in a position to send reinforcements and air-drop stuff. Instead they mostly supply obvious answers to your characterâ€™s asinine questions, and occasionally email you files telling you how to kick things.
- Give it to enemies. Put a sniper at the top of the church tower. The player could dodge the sniper-fire and avoid the encounter, but if they choose they can climb the tower and kill the undead sod. If they do, they get its rifle.
(This last one gets more on my nerves every time it crops up. If I kill an enemy thatâ€™s been attacking me with item A, I want to be able to pick up item A and use it. I do not want it to disappear, or to lie on the ground but not let me grab it, or be mysteriously replaced by another item, usually a health potion that the enemy could have used to stay alive but didnâ€™t. Please. How hard is this, really?)
Games in general have never handled the matter of traders convincingly. Many adventures for tabletop D&D featured poor farming communities in the deepest countryside that somehow supported not only a large tavern but also at least one shop filled with weapons, armour and adventuring supplies. Games like Moria and Angband continued that tradition (Angband starts in a town of eight buildings: three magic shops, two adventurer supply shops, a weaponsmith, an armourer, and your house). Now the twin principles that (a) there must be traders and (b) what they sell must be geared exclusively to the characterâ€™s needs (and (c) that they must also be willing to buy any old tat you want to sell them) are so thoroughly set into most games that experienced gamers donâ€™t think twice about it and new players wander around thinking how completely unlike a real, believable town this is.
The Final Fantasy series is a good example of what I call the three-shop town rule (weaponsmith; armourer; magic and provisions), and usually thereâ€™s an inn as well for the supply of rumours and bedspace. Final Fantasy has never been about realismâ€”the word â€˜fantasyâ€™ in the title is a bit of a give-awayâ€”but realism and believability are two different things. And if you don’t believe in a game-worldÂ onÂ someÂ level then basically you’re just twiddling your fingers.
Iâ€™m not saying, obviously, that every community in every game needs a corner shop, general hardware store, laundrette and Chinese take-away. On the other hand, shops in games shouldnâ€™t just be places to buy and sell goods. Build them into the back story. Build their owners into the story. Ask yourself why theyâ€™re there in the first place. Some games do already. Other games just include traders because other games of the same genre include traders. The designers of the latter games need punching.
I will say, as kind of a footnote, that Fable gets it sort-of right. Although most of its towns do only have adventurer-centric shops they also have a feel of bustle and community, you can buy and sell trivialities. But you can also encounter merchants on the road and (this is cunning, so pay attention) theyâ€™re almost inevitably either selling hairstyles or tattoos. So if you kill them or if they die while in your company, you shouldnâ€™t be disappointed when their wares arenâ€™t scattered on the ground. That, I thought, showed intelligence and a degree of wit.
Though, on the other hand, an early mission in Fable involves escorting two merchants to Darkwood Camp. Darkwood is full of bandits and werewolves, not a regular trade route in a world that has teleport-gates, and yet when you finally reach it Darkwood Camp turns out to be a three-shop trading village… dependent for its market, one expects, on adventurers lured there by merchants hiring them as escorts. That was the moment I realised that Fable wasnâ€™t a fable, it wasnâ€™t even a good story, it was the usual fantasy hotch-potch nonsense written by someone who Hadnâ€™t Thought It Through, and my heart sank another little bit. Not as far as it sank at the words â€œGot a selection of good things on sale, strangerâ€, though. Because there is only one instance where itâ€™s permissible to mix shopping and zombie-horror, and thatâ€™s Dawn of the Dead.
I may at some point write up my theory that Fable is Moria with nicer graphics, and Fable 2â€”in which, as previously noted, you have a dogâ€”will therefore be Nethack with nicer graphics. The theory is mostly balls but it generally gets a laugh and starts a decent pub-debate, and therefore serves its purpose.